Sunday, November 7, 2010

This Gift of Love –Part IV: “Indescribable Gifts”

This Gift of Love - Part IV

“Indescribable Gifts”

by Robert J. Elder

November 7, 2010

Isaiah 55:6-11

II Corinthians 9:6-15

Probably some of us were in communicant or confirmation classes in the days when the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession was still actively employed as a teaching tool. Even if we never memorized the Shorter Catechism, we might at least know what a catechism is: a series of questions and answers to be memorized for public recitation. The Shorter Catechism consisted of 107 questions and answers – based on material from the great Westminster Confession of Faith. Even if we don’t know the whole of the Shorter Catechism, probably many of us know its first and most famous question, along with the equally well-known answer:

Q. What is the chief end of man?

A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

An old friend of mine once reflected that “man spends too much of his time sitting on his chief end as it is…” Seriously though, this series of questions and answers was considered a pretty complete statement of belief…so complete that many years ago a prize was endowed at my alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary, which continues to award $150 to any seminarian who memorizes the entire 107 questions and answers of the catechism. That seemed like a lot more money back in 1973 than it does today, and not everyone tries for this prize any more, but many still do.

Now, if that first affirmation of the catechism is in any way still true, if indeed the principle purpose of humanity is the glorification and enjoyment of God, then how does that get worked out in life?

It seems to me that Paul answered a related question in II Corinthians. This time the question was “What is the purpose of Christian giving?” The answer is provided in the 11th verse of today’s reading and is very similar to the affirmation concerning the chief end of man. One important purpose of giving is to produce thanksgiving to God. Think about it. A gift sown in Corinth will reap a harvest of thanksgiving in Jerusalem.

I think I understand church giving to a certain extent. Usually, I see it from the human point of view. I tend to focus my attention on the results of giving that lie in the human dimension: the relief of suffering, the carrying on of some great work, the creation of new programs to meet changing needs within the church fellowship. But Paul, trained as a Pharisee, knew the centrality of the two great commandments of the Law: [1] to love the Lord with heart, soul, and strength, and [2] to love neighbor as self. He knew these two commandments to be inseparable. So in writing to the Corinthians concerning the collection for the poor in Jerusalem, he moved freely and naturally between the subjects of collection as a response to the needs of others and as a testimony to the glory of God.

The great commandment in the law is love of both neighbor and God, not one to the exclusion of the other. In our practice of Christian stewardship, the chief end of human life – to glorify God and enjoy God – can often get squeezed out of the picture if we focus too exclusively on another purpose of Christian living: to be of service to others.

Paul reminded the Corinthians that the main reason for giving – the main reason for living – is to bring glory to God. Their gift would result in shouts of praise in Jerusalem. That was a worthy end in itself, quite apart from the relief the offering would provide.

Paul reminds us that Christ became human in order to glorify God; so we give what we can to increase that glory. If our giving loses its origin and purpose in God and his grace, both it and our faith will shrivel, perhaps even die out altogether.

We reflected on this idea once in a weekly Bible study group I used to lead. We seldom think of our worship – our praise, for instance – as a worthy work of Christian life. Most often we are inclined to speak of things we did or did not “get out of worship.” We approach worship as receivers, empty vessels waiting to be filled. But another view must enter our thinking about worship, indeed about the whole of our lives as believers. Our chief work in worship – as our chief end in life – is to bring glory to God. When we stand and half-heartedly sing a hymn, or come to worship more ready to be distracted than to concentrate on our work of praise, we become poor stewards of our time before God. In Christian worship, there is but one audience, and that is God. We are the performers. Our work of praise is important, equally important as love of neighbor.

Think of all the agrarian references Paul made in these few verses. These would please all the folks who labored in the community garden project this past summer. He spoke of gifts for the collection as a sowing, the receiving of the gifts a reaping. He spoke of abundance, which is the word every farmer longs to use in reference to the current year’s crop. He wrote that their righteousness was like a harvest, and what was the harvest to be? All this bountiful sowing would result in produce – a harvest of thanksgiving to God. Not only would wants be supplied, but the harvest would overflow with thanksgivings. People see the good that believers can do, as Jesus said they must, and glorify not us but God.

There was another dynamic at work in Corinth and Jerusalem that we might not be so able to see because of the distance of the centuries between Corinth and Vancouver. But the fact was that the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem weren’t so sure that the Gentiles of Corinth – or anywhere else – could really be believers. They had had their doubts all along about the non-Jewish Christians. A serious rift between Jews and Gentiles in the early church was always simmering just under the surface. Paul was acutely aware of this. What could heal the divisions?

The book of Acts describes Paul’s opposition to every effort to place Gentile Christians at some lower level than Jewish believers. He knew that the gift for the suffering Christians in Jerusalem would help maintain and further the unity of the body of Christ.

When he wrote about the “test of this service,” he knew that folks in Jerusalem wondered just how far the gospel might have gone in winning the hearts of the Gentiles. But in Christian love, a test is never a mere judgement. It is also an opportunity for growth. In this case, Paul could see it was an opportunity for growth on both sides of the need that was to be addressed.

The offering would result in a crop of praise from both giver and recipient, and the ultimate good would be that God would be praised.

Perhaps one more item needs to be addressed before we leave these two chapters of II Corinthians where we have spent these four Sundays. It is the subject of tithing.

Now, we will have had four sermons from these two chapters over the last few weeks. I have had a handful of conversations in which the message was on the order of, “Rob, I have heard that some people may be getting tired of hearing about money each week.” Me too. I get weary of the unending pitches for money which seem to permeate our society. On the other hand, I have also heard from other people who have said, “It’s about time we heard sermons like this!” Such is the life of a preacher! So I looked through the last three sermons – based on these two chapters of II Corinthians – and do you know, I found very few uses of the word “money?” What is written all over Paul’s letter – what I have attempted to reflect in my sermons with you – is the theology of Christian stewardship. That is quite a different matter, for it describes a style of life, a form of discipleship, rather than a one dimensional begging for funds.

As one scholar put it, in II Corinthians Paul shows us “what happens when, in the name of Christ who gave himself on the cross, we learn how to give.”(1) That is a worthy subject far transcending money matters.

We know that Paul’s long-term goal was not fund-raising but disciple-raising for one reason if for no other: Throughout these 2 chapters, he never once mentioned the Old Testament principle of the tithe – the giving of 10% of what one has. Isn’t that strange? Consequently, I haven’t mentioned it until just now. Here we have Paul, a Jew of the strict party of the Pharisees, who would have had a full awareness of the concept of tithing, not even bringing the subject up. Why?

Some(2) have said that what he says in II Corinthians 8 and 9 suggests he would have rejected tithing as a rigid rule. He was aware that for those on a bread line, tithing could mean disaster – they themselves could become the objects of charity. For someone in upper income brackets to say, “I have tithed, I have given enough” would be equally wrong. Legalism and generosity make bad companions. No rule governs God’s love for us; none should govern our love for God in return.

Paul was aware of the poverty of the Macedonians and didn’t even expect their participation in the offering, much less a 10% tithe. The wealthier Corinthians, on the other hand, were not restricted by the tithe and were free to give beyond the 10% demanded by the Old Testament principle.

When Paul said, “God is able to give you more than you need,” we are to reflect on a life directed not to amassing possessions, but to addressing needs. A life-style of Christian stewardship is one which offers itself increasingly, and is increasingly content with less. This is ample enough reason for a harvest of praise to God.

What more can we say, other than what Paul has said to us? When we consider the gospel which we have been given, free of charge, a gospel which has saved us and provides real hope for the world, we can join Paul in saying, “Thanks be to God for God’s inexpressible gift!”


(1) This Service of Love, by Mark Landfried, © the Synod of the Trinity, 1978, p. 71.

(2) Second Corinthians, by Ernest Best, John Knox Press, 1987, p. 89.